The Waterfall Traveler

The Waterfall Traveler was first published in 2017 and is S.J. Lem’s debut novel. It is a fantasy story about a teenage girl who teams up with a group of young men to protect her village from monsters. The story forms the first part of a planned series, though at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

Due to her adopted father’s illness, Ri has long been treated as an outsider in her isolated island home. The sickness has slowly robbed Samuel of his mind and left him as a shell of his former self. His confused state makes him susceptible to confusion, which is why Ri does not initially believe his claims about the man who came through the waterfall.

Later, while out hunting, Ri comes across a sinister man in the woods and is attacked and badly wounded by an unseen creature. She’s rescued by another stranger who does indeed take her to safety through the waterfall. Yet this leaves Ri with a problem. Waterfall travel is regulated by the phases of the moon and so it will be a full month before she can return to Samuel.

Ri is frantic, yet there seems to be nothing that she can do. She is forced to bide her time by helping her saviour – Bryce – and his con-artist friend Carter to deliver medicines to sick people in the valley below. Yet the city she has found herself in is far from her home and is torn between monster attacks and the iron rule of a tyrant. All Ri wants is to go back to Samuel, but first she must survive the dangers of this strange new society…

I really did want to like this book. The blurb was intriguing and its cover art is, frankly, beautiful. Unfortunately, I ultimately had a lot of problems with it. However, I will first begin with the positive. For an independent novel, The Waterfall Traveler is very well written. It felt polished, professional and had clearly been edited to a very high standard, which in turn made it largely easy to read. It’s clear that Lem is a talented writer, which made it disappointing that her debut was so forgettable.

The fantasy world of The Waterfall Traveler is unoriginal at best. There isn’t anything especially unique about it at all. In my opinion, the biggest issue was that Lem didn’t take the time to fully describe her unique concepts. This meant that I never truly empathised with the threat that they presented to Ri and her friends.

A good example of this were the monsters, known in the story as either “Nightmares” or “the Harbingers of the Culling” (though I’m not sure why they’re called this as it’s not clear what “the Culling” even is). I really can’t tell you much about these, even though they hound the protagonists throughout the entire novel. Beyond the fact that they were vaguely insectoid, I couldn’t even tell you want they look like.

Their scale varies throughout the story, sometimes wolf-sized but other times larger than a person. Their life-cycle is only vaguely explained and their abilities are unclear. They seem to be able to speak (or at least chant) early in the story, but later only make chattering sounds. In my head, they were similar to the Xenomorphs of the Alien movies, but I’m not sure if this is exactly what the author had in mind.

The plot also felt very unfocused, as though Ri was just going with the flow. The ruthless dictator of Black Valley is mentioned a few times but he never actually appears in the story, nor is his terror felt beyond the corrupted and easily bribed guards that patrol the city. There are also occasional references made to three gods – Death, Fate and Eisanea – although people don’t seem to really worship them and it’s not even clear whether they truly exist until the story’s final act.

There is also a problem with telling versus showing. So many important things in the story occur off page, especially during the climax. A lot of the events of the past are related to Ri third hand, as conjecture by people who were not directly involved rather than even being from the mouths of those who were. There is even the mortal wounding of a major character that occurs while Ri is elsewhere, only for her to come back in time for his final words. This is inexcusably weak plotting. While a bit of exposition is inevitable, writers should always aim to show rather that tell. There is nothing more disappointing than missing out on the action.

And then there are the characters. I’d like to say that the weakness in the plotting were made up for by good character development but that’s unfortunately not true. Let’s look at Ri first. She’s the main protagonist of the story, as it is mostly told in first person from her perspective. Yet she’s one of the weakest female characters that I’ve read in a long time. Although we open to a scene that shows that she’s capable of hunting and looking after a sick old man, after she leaves the village she completely loses the ability to do anything for herself.

This is, in part, due to the fact that the predominantly male cast think that she needs to be wrapped in cotton wool. The primary goal of every male character in this book is protect Ri by any means necessary, even though they have no possible way of knowing that she can’t do this for herself. They drag her away from dangerous situations, risk life and limb to shield her from harm and refuse to tell her anything. Even though none of them have known her for more than a few days. Seriously, they do not know anything about her upbringing and just jump to the conclusion that she must be helpless.

Yet their judgement is right. Even when Ri seems like she is about to do something – anything – one of her suitors swoops in and does it for her. Yes, they are suitors. All of them. Although Ri only returns to the affections of two of the characters (and naturally can’t pick which one she loves more, despite hardly knowing them), all four of the young male characters seem to have a thing for her. Even the morally dubious one who makes out that he doesn’t care if she lives or dies. Ri is universally loved by all, making her a Mary Sue of the worst kind.

Beyond being a pack of white knights, the male characters aren’t all that interesting either. Ri’s two potential lovers – Bryce and Baxter – are both pretty interchangeable. Although Baxter is initially presented as being the bad boy, both wind up being essentially kindly yet overbearingly protective of Ri. While a little more effort is spent in showing Ri’s growing relationship with Baxter, Bryce just really falls for her on sight. He even tries to kiss her after they have known each other for less than a day because he thought there was chemistry there.

The other two male characters – Mallory and Carter – do stand out a little more but this doesn’t make them any less annoying. Mallory is really the closest thing that there is to an antagonist in the story. While he still protects Ri, he doesn’t fawn over her at least and thus is a bit more complex than the rest. Carter is just irritating. He’s supposed to be a con-man (although I don’t think he ever cons anyone) and speaks almost exclusively in innuendo. I hated Carter more than anything and spent most of the story just wishing violent fates upon him.

Anyhow, I think I’ve said enough. Ultimately, The Waterfall Traveler was not the story for me at all. If you’re a fantasy fan, there are far better young adult novels out there. Although Lem is a technically good writer, this book was ultimately forgettable.

The Waterfall Traveller can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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